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FOOTBALL SMARTS : Are Computers and Thick Playbooks Necessary When Team That Blocks and Tackles Best Usually Wins?

January 10, 1988|KEN DENLINGER | Washington Post

But a team is only as bright as its players. Few NFL teams discuss how they judge the college prospects who compose the lifeblood of their franchises. The Washington Redskins are more open than most. For the last few years, they have relied heavily on tests devised by two eye specialists, Dr. Harry Wachs and Dr. Ron Berger.

At George Washington University, Wachs and Berger have been using tests that measure sight and insight. Their tests seek to estimate raw intelligence instead of the IQ variety that predicts school success.

According to Wachs, The tests "tap into the human potential anywhere in the world" and have been given to tribes in Africa, to Eskimos and to children with learning problems.

In looking for new talent, Redskin scouts carry such items as a beanbag and goggles that distort lines of sight. They use small blocks and plastic shapes about the size of tiddlywinks. In all, the test is a series of games that lasts about 90 minutes.

The tests measure, among other football necessities, giving and following instructions, the ability to think under pressure, hand-eye coordination, speed of seeing, speed of thinking, adaptability to physical change, the willingness to take risks.

"Who can think on their feet in the global picture of a game" is how Wachs describes it. The scouts administer the tests; Wachs and Berger evaluate them.

So far, the Redskin who best validates the tests is strong safety Alvin Walton. His classroom performance at the University of Kansas had been terrible, but he aced the Redskins' measurement of football potential.

Unfortunately, Wachs said, the Redskins drafted a receiver, 1986 second-rounder Walter Murray, before giving him tests that showed a glaring lack of depth perception. Murray later was traded to the Indianapolis Colts.

At this point, though, no body of scientific evidence exists to pinpoint the smartest players. But among the football intelligentsia, there is a general consensus on brain-jocks that will surprise even fairly devoted fans: Offensive linemen--the anonymous blockers--have more on the ball than anybody else on the team.

Consider: Our most prominent football president, Gerald Ford, was a center at the University of Michigan. (Supreme Court Justice Byron White, however, played halfback at Colorado. So much for theories.)

Nearly all the presidents of the NFL Players Assn have been offensive linemen. The man who uttered the wisest statement ever about pro football was a guard for the Dallas Cowboys, Blaine Nye, who declared: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts, but who gets the blame."

Nye has advanced degrees in physics and business and teaches at Stanford. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, he played for probably the most cerebral team in the NFL. Dallas Coach Tom Landry devised a defense basic to the NFL for 15 or so years, then came up with offensive counters to beat it.

The man who hired Landry, Tex Schramm, also is responsible for other intelligent moves in football management. It was Schramm, as general manager of the Rams in the late '40s, who figured it would be a good idea to hire full-time scouts to evaluate prospective draftees independently, rather than rely so heavily on press clippings.

As the first--and only--chief executive officer of the Cowboys, Schramm used computers to help get a more accurate line on talent. The Cowboys also bumped traditional NFL thinking by drafting athletes from other sports (Olympic sprinter Bob Hayes and basketball collegian Cornell Green), drafting from obscure colleges (Rayfield Wright from Fort Valley State in Georgia) and constructing offensive lines from collegians who had majored in defense.

As one NFL personnel director said several years ago, college players with the highest grades on intelligence tests tended to be, in order: Offensive tackles, centers, quarterbacks and guards.

"They're the real thinkers of the team," the Rams' John Robinson said in Paul Zimmerman's "The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football." He added: "The receivers say: 'Throw me the ball.' The runners say: 'Hand me the ball.' But offensive linemen stop and say: 'Why are we doing that?' "

If, as alleged, NFL smarts usually go from the inside out on offense, it's the other way around on defense. The defensive position requiring the most intelligence is free safety, because he usually signals adjustments as the offensive formation changes before the snap.

Defensive linemen have their codes, too. Once in training camp during the Watergate trial of former Attorney General John Mitchell in the mid-'70s, Washington Redskin defensive tackle Diron Talbert suddenly yelled: "Watergate! Watergate! Watergate!"

"What's that mean?" he was asked later.

The politically savvy Talbert said: "Nothing. It's just a dummy defense."

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